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From ‘Miseducation’ to Miss Lauryn Hill

In a new book, author Joan Morgan examines the story behind one of the best hip-hop albums ever

Author and cultural critic Joan Morgan is widely regarded as one of the chief architects of the ideas that make up hip-hop feminism. Now she’s got a new book out examining the legacy of one of the most misunderstood women in hip-hop: Lauryn Hill.

Morgan, 53, is best known as the author of When the Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist. She wrote it in 1998, with Hill’s seminal debut solo album providing the sonic backdrop for her thoughts. Published the following year, Chickenheads reckoned with what it meant to love a culture and a genre that didn’t always love black women. It was a revelation for women who were trying to reconcile the contradictions about what it meant to be a fan of hip-hop.

Now, 20 years after the Aug. 25, 1998, release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Morgan takes a deep dive into explaining why the album was and remains so important. It was undeniably catchy, but also profound and soulful. Hill released it not long after giving birth to her first child, Zion. She’d weathered a tumultuous breakup with former Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean, then dragged him spectacularly in the album’s opening song, “Lost Ones.” Hill was nominated for 10 Grammys and won five for Miseducation, including best new artist and album of the year. At the time, her haul was the most for a female recording artist in a single night.

In She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Morgan lays out an argument for how and why the Fugees frontwoman became the prickly Miss Hill and a symbol of disappointment, notorious for showing up late (if at all) to concerts and refusing to give ticket-buyers the 22-year-old version of herself they loved so hard.

“We are still a little angry at Lauryn for just not being who we wanted her to be,” Morgan told me over a recent lunch at The Wing-Flatiron in New York. “We still have a very strong sense of ‘You were supposed to save hip-hop, you were supposed to save the world, you were supposed to save us, and you let us down.’ We can be disappointed by not having four more albums from her or even another album from her, but we’re not entitled to it.”

In She Begat This, Morgan talks about how significant it was that Hill could go toe-to-toe with male emcees while retaining a unique, round-the-way-girl femininity. Educated at Columbia University and influenced by Haitian and Jamaican culture, Hill effortlessly carried the diaspora with her in her music, in her dress, even the way she wore her hair, Morgan contends. Morgan supplements her own expertise with commentary from writers and thinkers such as Karen Good Marable, Michaela Angela Davis, dream hampton and Beverly Bond.

During our conversation, Morgan discussed Hill, Beyoncé, Cardi B, Aretha Franklin and why #MeToo hasn’t had more of an impact on the music industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How did we get to this view of Lauryn Hill as a problematic hotep? When she debuted with the Fugees and then again as a solo act, she was seen as a smart, uplifting rapper with feminist sensibilities.

I think that what happens is that people think where you are 20 years later is where you were 20 years before. And so while we generally say things very casually now like cisgendered male, or heteronormative, or queer studies, hip-hop feminism, people think that those theories were existent and this is just the way the people generally talk to each other. They weren’t. People were very much in the throes of creating that.

I was writing When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost and listening to Miseducation. I wouldn’t say we were ignorant, but the sort of performance of wokeness that everyone’s deeply invested in now, people weren’t performing that yet because we were still trying to language things.

Another downside I’ve noticed in terms of just cultural criticism is that there’s a real impulse to talk about art through a representation politic. ‘What does the art represent?’ That was really much less of the case when I started writing about hip-hop. There was still a real respect for ‘What is the art and what does it do? How does it make you feel? It’s a more holistic sort of lens. How did we listen to “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and not pay attention [to the slut-shaming lyrics]? Because the music was dope. It was fun, you could dance to it, Lauryn looked great. That’s where it was.

Do you think we were harder on Hill than on her male contemporaries who spat lyrics laden with misogyny?

We’re harder on all the women. It’s not just Lauren. We’re harder on Beyoncé. We’re harder on Rihanna. Particularly critiques from other women. It just amazes me, all of the room we gave for black male genius and black male angst.

I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote Chickenheads that there’d ever be a Beyoncé-level black female performer who called herself feminist. It has happened, and people are upset because she’s not steeped in black feminist theory, as if any feminist is born steeped in black feminist theory. It’s sort of like, ‘Do we pledge feminism now? Is this what’s going on?’ Like there’s a new sorority that I was unaware of.

Aretha Franklin didn’t go around saying, ‘I’m a feminist’ in every interview, but she was laying it all out there in her songs. But that didn’t dominate how we discussed her work when she was alive.

Because we take a lot of things for granted that they are as they always were, and they weren’t. Even bigger than that is what happened in particular in these last 20 years. The difference between the ’60s and the ’80s doesn’t feel as great to us as the difference between the ’90s and mid-2000s because we have the advent of the digital age, which actually really changes everything.

[In 1998] friends of mine were like, ‘Why are you writing a book on feminism? Can you use the same ideas and not call it feminism?’ I can click on a hashtag now and see my kinsmen all over the globe. I can click on #BlackGirlMagic and see them all over the globe. Black girl joy all over the globe. Black feminism all over the globe.

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know where the other me’s were. I was writing to try to pull them in. There wasn’t any convenient archive in the way there is now to show you we have numbers here. Calling yourself a feminist just was always an invitation to a long, laborious conversation about what you were not as opposed to what you were.

You talk about how there’s a distance between the real Lauryn and the image the public projected onto her. But that’s true of a lot of artists. Erykah Badu found a way to make fun of the image of her as this earth goddess who gets involved with rappers and turns them out. But Lauryn never did.

Lauryn has some really hard things happen immediately after that album. So much of why she was lauded for it critically was because it was seen as an album that she wrote, produced, sang, and so there was a lot of weight given to that and she just won a crapload of awards around that. She was a baby, really, and then almost immediately the lawsuit [over production credits] comes out. And so that puts into question the things that she claimed to be true about herself.

And she went to jail for tax evasion in 2013.

[Three] months is not a terribly long time — unless you’re in jail. But it’s even longer if you’re Lauryn Hill in jail. She had five, now six kids. She has to be separated from them. That’s just a lot. In some ways I feel like with all of that on her plate, I don’t know that she was ever really thinking about us.

So when Lauryn comes out, the person who even matches her record is Cardi. It’s so different than her. I love Cardi — Bronx girl, doing that! But she’s a very different woman than Lauryn is. And if we loved Lauryn because of what she represented, we love Cardi because of what she refuses to represent.

We’re harder on all the women. It’s not just Lauren. We’re harder on Beyoncé. We’re harder on Rihanna.

I don’t think Cardi has any interest in how she moves through the world, in people’s respectability politics. I’ve seen her fiercely challenge elder feminists who say that she’s not a feminist. She’s withstood enough to know it’s very class-based. It has to do with what they perceive her lack of education is or her lack of credentials. She’s messy when she needs to be, and she owns it. She’s private when she needs to be. She makes mistakes and she apologizes and she’s very much into making us privy to her thought process, but she’s not beholden to us in terms of how she crafts herself, and she really refuses to be. And I think people are madly in love with her authenticity and her sort of fierce dedication to being who she is. And if we don’t like it, f— it. People love her underdog story.

Lauryn was very protective of her own story and what we may think about it, and you know we’ve never heard her. She’s never publicly talked about the affair with Wyclef [Jean]. If you were in the industry at the time, we all knew. But the reason the public even knows now is because Wyclef talked about it in his book. And at the time, even who the father of her child was, was a mystery for a minute for a lot of people until we found out that it was Rohan [Marley]. She knew the world that she was in when she came out as a creative and as a woman and as an artist. I wonder how she processes the world as it is now and what it takes to be a woman and an artist in it. I don’t have the answer for that.

Aside from Russell Simmons, #MeToo hasn’t really had a huge effect on the music industry the way it has in media and film. Why do you think that is?

Black women watched how many women came forward and accused Bill Cosby and suffered the indignity online of black women and black men telling them that they were buying into a conspiracy. We’re told that we’re disposable in a kind of way. That our voice, our pain, violence against us doesn’t count.

R. Kelly is still performing! I never watched the tape. I’m not into child pornography, but enough people did and still made excuses anyway. It’s really indicative about not only how society views black women but how black women view their place in society. What do I risk by stepping forward to accuse these men? I was saddened by it, but I certainly was not surprised.

Because we know this misconduct exists.

‘Who would be left?’ is really what the conversations that I was having with my girlfriends. It was just like, who would be left? Who would really be left? And part of that is just the culture of the music industry across the board.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.